David Slemen: Why the Head of People is sport's best-kept secret

David Slemen is the founder of Elite Performance Partners

David Slemen is the founder of Elite Performance Partners

IN this series, I’ve been working through the five new roles I consider to be key for high-performing teams in football.

I have already covered the Sporting Director, Director of High Performance and Director of Strategy and Analytics. Now it is the turn of arguably the most under-represented role in sport - and perhaps the one with the greatest potential to create competitive advantage.

Unlike the other roles on the list, the importance - and success - of a Head of People and Team Development is difficult to measure. However, a good one can greatly impact culture, environment and performance, helping to develop psycho-social skills across individuals, teams and entire clubs and create a process and programme for learning and development.

This person should exist to help create a high-performance culture that develops and supports a deep team identity off the pitch, alongside the mental skills and mindset on the pitch, thereby allowing everyone to perform under pressure and helping develop a group dynamic that takes into account the emotional make-up of individuals and not just their technical skill.


The need for this role has been established in other sports, such as cricket, Aussie Rules and an array of Olympic disciplines, even if the role itself hasn’t.

For this, we have innovative coaches to thank - they have looked to create competitive advantage through less traditional methods such as teaching, performance psychology and mental fitness.

Those who have embraced this role have looked to shift the focus from performance to people and create an environment in which both the person and their ability are viewed simultaneously, albeit through a performance lens.

This creates a more sustainable culture in which individuals are part of a wider cause.

As with the other roles I’ve explored in this series, the Head of People and Team Development takes the focus from short-term results to long-term vision.


To build an effective team, everyone - both coaches and players alike - need to buy into a set of behaviours, standards and culture, with a true sense of belonging, as highlighted by Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive.

The Head of People and Team Development assists coaches by sharing information that helps balance technical performance assessment with people development. This might be formal or informal, via group work or presentations, or individually with players.

They help to minimise and manage the stressful events and unwanted incidents that can derail a season. However, by helping to create cohesion and connection, they can do so much more: they can help build high-performing teams.

While many believe these are things that come naturally to a team and are part of the skillset of all the best coaches, more often than not you need a process and system to really develop mindsets and drive team bonding. You also need to prioritise them alongside time in the gym, embedding them in the overall programme, just as you would for any other skill.

This is why the Head of People and Team Development is the best-kept secret in sport and why I am confident the role will become more and more prevalent in football in the years to come.


Storytelling is a huge part of the role – and of good coaching as a whole. It helps you get beneath the surface and engage with the players over and above the game, taking meaning from other, often personal, situations and individual histories.

We all relate better to imagery and stories than we do to tactics. Anyone lucky enough to have seen professional storyteller Clare Muireann Murphy at the Leaders in Performance summit at the end of last year will recognise this truth and I know I'll remember the stories she told to illustrate the talks better than the words of the speakers themselves.

When most athletes reflect on their careers - and I am no different - it is with a sense of something bigger than the technical and tactical lessons they learnt. This is what a Head of People and Team Development is there for: to create and nurture a sense of belonging and turn it into performance on the pitch.

They are the guardians of the team’s values, helping everyone understand why they are important and how to maintain the standards they have set.


At present, these people are few and far between.

Dr Pippa Grange, who left the Football Association last November after 20 months as Head of People and Team Development, had an impact across numerous areas from helping build resilience and enabling the teams to play without fear to instilling a sense of ownership and leadership in the individual players, getting them to take responsibility for their own performance - which many clubs would do well to mimic.

Her successor at the FA, Dr Ian Mitchell, previously of the Welsh FA, has taken on a slightly different title - Head of Performance Psychology – but is another example of an excellent exponent of the role.

David Priestley, who has been Head of Psychology and Personal Development at Arsenal since July 2014, is probably as close as you will get to this role in club football. He is responsible for culture, values and the development of a high-performance environment at the North London club and previously worked for English and European rugby champions Saracens.

Further afield, Australia are once again arguably a step ahead of us, possibly as a result of the need to find competitive advantage on a more level playing field, given that many of their sports are subject to a salary cap. Anthony Klarica, who has helped Olympic sports, AFL clubs, motor sports and Tennis Australia to maximise performance in his homeland, springs to mind as a strong example.

Other than this, I see parts of the role via good performance psychologists focusing on mental skills, but not the coach whisperers who can create the real difference.


Although I have no doubt that things will soon change, the role tends to be created with a particular person in mind, rather than great candidates being found for well-considered briefs.

Most elite football clubs are currently addressing this area via a team of coaches, psychs, teachers and even ex-athletes, rather than one overarching expert.

However, clubs and sporting organisations - and particularly the coaches within them - see how this role fast-tracks performance and development once they have it. After all, players are tasked with absorbing and learning so much and come to the game with different levels of experience and maturity.

To do the role well, the Head of People and Team Development needs to be tertiary-trained but also have practical and applied experience. They won’t necessarily be an ex-athlete, although this can help with empathy and understanding when they typically have only 10 minutes to hold attention and get their message across.


Time to develop people is limited and careers are short in elite sport, so good candidates need to be great with players, win trust early and be seen to have the right motivation.

If they have a good understanding of performance psychology, stakeholder management and the empathy to understand different people and what makes them tick, they are probably on the right track.

A deep honesty they are prepared to share is also critical.

  • David Slemen is a former professional sportsman and the founding partner of Elite Performance Partners, the high performance talent consultancy and search firm. EPP works with football clubs across the Premier League and was responsible for a number of high-profile placements within the FA’s leadership team.

Read more on:


More stories

Sign up to our newsletter to get all the latest news from The Guru